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An interview with Mark McCormack, February 5, 2006
Uncorking another season
After 14 years as a pro, Mark McCormack has established himself as one of America's most exerienced racers still on the circuit today. Another season at Colavita-Sutter Home promises a host of opportunities, including a shot at the national criterium championship plus a run in the all-American USPRO race - challenges the veteran team player is looking forward to. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski caught up with McCormack as he begins another season.
Colavita-Sutter Home's team leader enters another year on the North American scene - his 14th year as a professional. Mark got his start racing with older brother Frank, who he followed to the Saturn juggernaut in 1996. The limelight was held mainly by Frank until 2003, when the younger McCormack won both the USPRO road championship and the Pro Cycling Tour overall. Since then the 35-year-old has enjoyed a momentum that has helped him win numerous races in his second decade as a professional. Like many others, McCormack was left without a team after Saturn ended their involvement in the sport - however, a new east coast team started by John Profaci, Colavita-Sutter Home, offered him an opportunity to assume the role of team leader and continue to explore his later-career success.
It wasn't easy to be a North American pro team in 2005, battling for the already limited media exposure with a juggernaut like the 'green machine' [Health Net] about. But Colavita-Sutter Home, led by McCormack, quietly racked up some impressive wins - including the Tour of Connecticut overall, the $100,000 Bank of America Criterium and stages of the Tour de Toona. As with all North American teams, change is constant. Near the close of the 2005 season, it looked as though Colavita-Sutter Home's rider lineup might remain intact for another season, yet the team ended up losing two key riders in sprinter Juan Jose Haedo and overall rider Aaron Olson. "Both John and Frank wanted to keep Aaron and J.J. around, but both found other opportunities to pursue. We could have had a repeat roster going into 2006, which isn't very common if you look at most teams," says McCormack. But he's used to the turnover of the U.S. scene, and is confident that new signings will fill the voids.
"Obviously Juan Jose was going to be a huge hole to fill," McCormack admits. "Fortunately, my brother Frank found Viktor Rapinski who was available to come back to America after a year with Phonak. Both [Frank] and I raced with Viktor at Saturn in 2002 and again in 2003. We've both seen him in action personally. He's hungry to get back into some racing where he can excel. His style of racing should suit our team really well in terms of his abilities - knowing that he can sprint really fast, climb well and time trial well too. Hopefully, he'll fill what we would have lost without Juan Jose."
In addition to Rapinski, Colavita-Sutter Home will again be developing younger talent in the form of Kyle Wamsley and Zak Grabowski. "I've raced against Kyle in a few races where he really caught my eye. I feel strongly that he will be an asset. I think most teams will underestimate him as a rider, and that will be good for us. He has a lot of savvy - he really understands his own strengths and weaknesses. So when he gets in a breakaway situation, for example, he's the type of guy that knows how to monitor himself, make sure that he's not blowing himself before the finish so that he can win from that breakaway. We also picked up Zak Grabowski from TIAA-CREF, a really young guy that we've known for several years after racing with the Hot Tubes junior team around here. He should be another good rider - he has a lot of depth for someone his age."
Still, losing a fast sprinter like Haedo, who won the 2005 Bank of America Criterium, hurts, particularly when he'll still be riding in the North American peloton. But Haedo isn't the only loss. "I think Juan Jose is the biggest loss, but we lost Aaron Olson too," explains McCormack. "He had a lot of depth and is a really good team player. The good thing is we lost him to a team that is racing elsewhere so we won't really be competing against him. And it's a great opportunity for any American that wants to race in Europe." McCormack wishes Olson the best of luck, saying, "I think it's great Aaron found that road in. I think he has the mental make-up to survive the initial experience over there. It's not as glamorous as everybody reads about or sees on TV - it takes the right person, and I think Aaron knows what he is in for. But it's still tough to lose a guy like Aaron - he knows how to read a race really well."
Home at Colavita-Sutter Home
This year marks the third season for McCormack at his current team, a successful partnership that has grown from small beginnings - especially when compared to where McCormack came from in 2004. "Switching from Saturn at the end of 2003 to Colavita...I'll admit I was nervous that it would only last a year or that the expectations I had come to know at Saturn would hurt my experience. But things have gone really well. John Profaci has a good vision and he has grown the team gradually; he isn't taking heroic leaps from a startup team to having the biggest budget in America, then leaving a year later. It's fun for me that I get to be around guys that love to race and to be with sponsors that are passionate about the sport."
Not having to worry about team issues has allowed McCormack to continue to enjoy racing, a necessary component to continuing a long career. "I still love to train - I love to race. I've never put a date or a time or an age on when I would stop, and I won't. There are a couple of things I have in my mind that will keep me in the sport. One is that it continues to be fun. Two, that I continue to do well. Doing well doesn't mean that I necessarily need to win races, but I want to feel like I am contributing to the success of the team or feel like I am close to winning and being a major player in the big races. Three, the financial component. I need to get paid to do it or I'll need to get another job! If those three things can stay intact, I feel like I have more in me and that I'm even getting better."
McCormack's wins while riding for this team are quite impressive, something he attributes to his team as well as his well-rounded talents. "I look at my season last year and I won races I hadn't won before and took second overall in the NRC. I won a NRC criterium and a NRC road race and a NRC stage race. I think that shows pretty well that I have a diversified skill-set," he says. "I still lack, and I always will lack, the pure climbing ability - and that is something I have learned to cope with. Fortunately there are enough races that don't require being a great climber! That's also the beauty of being in a team environment - you get to race with different types of guys and create plenty of opportunities."
Targets for 2006
Typical of many racers is to plan the season around particular races, so as to time peaks and valleys in terms of training and racing. But not for McCormack, who has two training/racing settings - on and off, something he explains by saying, "I don't necessarily start a season with say three races that I want to win. It's more that I like to be very solid from the start of the year to the finish. I never really have a downtime where I feel like I shouldn't be going to races." And the reason for this? "That way I can capitalise on situations that present themselves - whether for me or my teammates. I like to be an asset to my team, one way or the other. And that requires being at a high level of fitness for the entire season. I tend to be in better spirits when I am fit too, rather than ease into the year aiming for fitness at nationals in September. Not having racing somewhere in the near future takes away that motivation to push yourself in training."
But being a team player means you have to be switched on 100 per cent of the time, something McCormack takes very seriously. "Some guys do it well - they hang the bike up after San Francisco and start to ramp it up near January. My theory is to be as good as I can be most of the time and captitalise on the situations when they come around. That has worked well for me in my past seasons."
There are still races on McCormack's list that have not been crossed off in his long career - and one particularly elusive win that he works for every year. "I still want to win that national criterium championship! I've been in the top five many times. It's the type of race where one pedal stroke differently or one corner on the other side of the bunch... I've been so close to winning, you know? I really felt like my fitness has been there more than two or three times."
Yet McCormack knows that it's not getting any easier. "It shows the depth of American criterium racing, especially this past season with five Americans on the podium. In my experience, since 1992, that is the first time it has happened." And he also knows that training is only half the game of this particular race. "I always make criterium nationals a priority, but I'm usually in shape for that already. For me it's more that I need to make better decisions - there has to be another component beyond the fitness. Someone else made a better decision at the right time or I hesitated. But that's criterium racing. Especially one like that with so many corners and the finish line so close to the last corner - with forty guys going into the last turns with equal shots at winning it."
USPRO goes US-only
One major change to the 2006 racing schedule that has spiked the former USPRO road champion's interest is the new American-only road championship. For quite some now McCormack has been waiting for the change. "I'm really looking forward to this all-American version of the USPRO road championship in September. Not to say that I can win it, but it'll be really cool to be a part of the first version of it. It's certainly going to be a learning experience for everybody that races there, because nobody really knows what it will be like yet. I guess you could equate it to when we have had Olympic trials. They tend to be the only thing we can look back on to see what it would be like to have an 'American-only' national championship."
There is some concern floating around that the Philadelphia race will lose interest now that it is no longer the USPRO championship, but McCormack only sees this as a sign of American cycling progressing forward. "Philly will be a great race with or without the jersey because of the history, the prize money, the fan base, the live TV coverage - it's a real event. But it's a good sign that we now have a U.S only championship. We have plenty of American pros now to field a race. About 15 years ago it wasn't possible. In 1992, when I got my pro license, there were only thirty of forty professionals. Now there are a lot more riders in what is now the UCI elite, or American professionals, whatever the terminology is...it's great that all the Americans can duke it out for the national championship like the other countries."
However, McCormack is still a little dumbfounded as to why only one of the two USPRO championships is going to the closed format, with the criterium championship (a mostly American-style race) still allowing foreign riders. "Hopefully it will spark the criterium nationals to do that next!" he says. And if the fire in McCormack's competitive spirit is still burning bright when they change that race, look out for him to give it his best shot.